There's not much that I love more than shoveling mud. Unless it's carrying five-gallon buckets of mud. Love it! Which is why I signed up to lend a hand at the Lareau Farm Inn in Waitsfield, home of the original American Flatbread. Like many properties in the Mad River Valley along Route 100, the Lareau Farm was slaughtered by Tropical Storm Irene floodwaters. The river broke its banks and drenched the farm, leaving tons of mud in its wake. It was the volunteers' job to get rid of the mud.
The day of volunteering began with a visit to the enviably well-organized MRV Volunteer HQ in the Masonic building in the center of Waitsfield. The GF and I went into office and told them we'd love to help if they'd give us a job. The office was a humming command center, filled with women manning phones and laptops, updating the group's Facebook page and organizing donations from tarps to dehumidifiers.
The woman behind the information table said she had just the job for us. She gave us our marching orders and reminded us to log our volunteer hours for FEMA. Apparently, the volunteer hours are taken into account when FEMA looks at how much assistance each town is eligible for. Then it was off to the Lareau Farm.
Now, I can't speak for my partner, but I feel confident in saying that I have no real skills that come in handy in situations like this. I don't know how to install a window or how to hang sheetrock. I don't have a clue how to rebuild fences or use a chainsaw. But I can lift. And lift. And lift. Luckily, that's all this job required.
When we arrived at the farm, we were met by George Schenk, the founder of Flatbread. He directed us to go join the other volunteers in the barn; we'd get the idea of what we were supposed to do when we got down there. The jobs were simple — either shovel mud or or carry it. Since there were fewer carriers than shovelers and since my estimation of my own strength is grossly exagerrated, I chose to carry.
The basement of the barn had been filled with at least two feet of mud, which volunteers dutifully scooped up and dumped in buckets. The buckets were then carried to the front of the barn where Schenk was waiting with a tractor with a big scoop thing (most likely also called a bucket) on the front. Then the mud was emptied into the tractor bucket and driven away to a pile behind the parking lot. This would be repeated countless times over the course of the day.
If you've never lifted a five-gallon bucket of silty river slop, I would recommend you keep it that way. Those suckers are heavy. And if you fancy yourself a hero, or at least someone who is reasonably strong, like I did, and you try to carry two at a time, consider a hernia or a slipped disc to be in your future.
In a matter of minutes, I was pouring sweat. A fellow volunteer informed me that this was nothing compared to the house she had just come from where she was doing this same work, but in a crawl space in the basement. At least she could stand up straight in the barn, she said. Fair enough.
After I lost a quarter of my body weight in perspiration, it was time for a new job. Schenk asked if someone would take a hoe and scrape off the windowsills of the barn, which were caked in about two inches of doughy mud. I volunteered for that task if for no other reason than to catch my breath. And to be able to say I was hoeing, which for some reason continued to be hilarious to the prepubescent boy part of my brain for the better part of the day.
While I was hoeing, I chatted with a few of the shoveling volunteers. One of them was a very refined woman with a British accent and size zero yoga pants. I asked if she was from around here and she laughed. "Do I look like I'm from around here in my all-black outfit? No, I'm from New York City," she cooed. Then, as if to prove the point that she was a place far more cosmopolitan than Vermont, she removed her work glove and showed me her perfectly manicured red nails. Point taken. She was probably wearing a full face of make-up, but it was dark and I couldn't really see.
Then I met a lovely gent with bow legs and Mr. Peabody glasses. We conversed about how I could look more legit doing manual labor. He suggested I invest in a used tool belt and just wear it around. I liked this guy immediately. Turns out, my new best friend was Sparky Potter, famous sign maker and father of rocker Grace.
Potter wasn't the only local celeb volunteering at Lareau Farm on Saturday. Former legislator and gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington was there as well, carrying bricks and planks of wood. While she might not have won the gov's race (and during all this Irene mess, I wonder if she might be glad she didn't), she does bake a mean chocolate chip cookie and she was nice enough to bring a few batches to the volunteers.
The day continued in much the same way with bucket, brick and board brigades scurrying all over the farm. The whole affair was seamlessly orchestrated by a friend of Schenk's named Michelle, who marshaled the troops like a general in battle. The volunteers were many — I'd estimate at least 50 when I was there. Most were from the valley. A few were from Chittenden County, including an enthusiastic crew from Dealer.com.
Though the work was gulag-ish, the atmosphere at the farm was upbeat, even joyous. I might even go so far to say that people were having fun. And I can say with certainty that the spirit of community and neighborliness was never more present at that farm than it was on Saturday. Irene might have been an unforgiving, treacherous bitch, but she brought all these disparate people together. That has to count for something.
Photos via Sparky Potter.